The first new novel in 20 years by Joseph Koenig, False Negative (Hard Case Crime), author of Little Odessa, Brides of Blood, is a period mystery set in the waning days of the true crime pulps. Its hero Adam Jordan, an Atlantic City reporter fired from job at a daily when he’s found out fabricating what he thought was a routine political photo op piece, lands a job working for Real Detective magazine and starts immediately digging into a sexy/vicious murder story that sends him into all sorts of seedy settings. The murder victim, a beauty contestant named Susannah Chase, turns out to be one of a group of strangulations of young girls. An earlier victim, black “hoofer/songstress” Etta Lee Wyatt, was attached to Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars.
Jordan’s investigation into the serial slayings takes him into the interlocking worlds of beauty pageants, party girls and the jazz club scene. (Our hero proves a snobbish connoisseur of that last, at one point mentally slamming an early R&B classic.) Along the way, we get to meet old Satchel Mouth himself, plus a colorfully delineated cast of more seedy types: most memorably, a white agent passing for black, a domestic violence prone ballplayer and a deceptively flitty photog named Pix Pixley. There are also live gorgeous dames in the picture, of course: a former Miss Jersey Shore named Mollie, and a black dancer from the Armstrong revue named Cherise. Both hook up with our hero and both wind up in peril for it.
Koenig takes his time with his mystery–focusing as much on the working of pulp crime mags and the dynamics of Eisenhower Era race relations as he does his whodunit. Koenig’s writing is as clean and specific as you’d expect a tale written from the perspective of an old-fashioned journalist to be. If at times, the author’s fascination with his milieu seems to take the focus away from his pulp thriller set pieces (a beach-set chase scene, in particular falls flat), False Negative still keeps us reading. There’s a lot of discussion in the early pages of this book between Jordan and his new editor about what the Real ‘Tec audience wants to see in the mags: Koenig cannily both uses and screws around with those expectations.
Twenty years is way too long a wait between novels.